Friday, August 24, 2012

Bitter Fruit: wrapping up Archie's Shadow comics

My series "Bitter Fruit" ran for 12 installments on this blog, ultimately detailing the contents of all eight issues of Archie's 1964-65 Shadow comic book; obviously, I named it after the 1930-50s Shadow radio program phrase: "the weed of crime bears bitter fruit!"
  1. "The Shadow vs. the RXG Spymaster!!"
  2. "The Eyes of the Tiger!"
  3. "Shiwan Khan's Murderous Master-Plan!"
  4. "Margo Lane's Honeymoon!"
  5. "Shiwan Khan's House of Horrors!"
  6. "The Princess of Death"
  7. "The Diabolical Dr. Demon!"
  8. "The Human Bomb!"
  9. "Menace of Radiation Rogue!"
  10. "The Incredible Alliance of Shiwan Khan and Attila the Hunter!"
  11. "The Shadow Battles... the Brute!"
  12. "The Shadow Versus: ...Radiation Rogue, Dr. Demon, Attila the Hunter, the Insidious Elasto and the Diabolical Dimensionoid in the Game of Death!"

What exactly was I hoping to accomplish by looking back at the series? I suppose my interest came primarily from being a fan of the Shadow radio program and having heard in a few places how Archie's Shadow was one of the worst comic books of the 1960s. As I noted in the first review, I read each story for the first time as I reviewed it (I composed each paragraph after reading a page or more of the story). My hope was to discover either:

A) Archie's the Shadow wasn't nearly as terrible as people claimed!


B) Archie's the Shadow is terrible - but in a fun way!

It probably comes through at least some of the time during my reviews - I tried to either make light of the proceedings or attempt to find something good about the comic. But never mind my hopes... what is my final judgment of the Shadow#1-8?

It is a textbook example of a bad comic book series.

First, take our protagonist... please!

As a fan of the radio program, I'm used to the Shadow being Lamont Cranston, "well-to do young man about town," an amateur sleuth who secretly fights crime as the Shadow by "clouding men's mind so that they cannot see him." Instead, this comic book version of Lamont Cranston is a wealthy playboy who owns a bank and museum and is secretly an agent of the US government (originally the Secret Service, later changed to C.H.I.E.F.), but extra-secretly is the Shadow, with the power to cloud men's minds so that they cannot see him, read men's minds, erase memories, plant hypnotic suggestions and fabricate elaborate illusions; plus, he carries a variety of special gadgets, from his multi-purpose Shadow-Gun to boots which let him fly.

I think "wealthy man who is secretly a super hero" is a sufficient hook for a super hero book; the secret agent material adds almost nothing to the series, except to occasionally give Lamont superiors who send him on assignments. The series was incredibly inconsistent in using the Shadow's powers; he almost never seems to think of the appropriate time to become invisible or read his foe's mind. The addition of gadgets in later issues only make his Shadow powers superfluous - instead of "remembering" he has powers to get out of a bind, he "remembers" he's carrying a gadget which is precisely suited to resolving the problem.

The Shadow's greatest hurdle in these issues is that he doesn't struggle; he has allies, powers and gadgets beyond reckoning, but no personal troubles. His money offers no burdens, his secret agent and super hero work never interfere with his own desires, he can solve any problem without needing someone else's help (even if he has to mind-control someone into dying, re: "the Brute") and he treats his supporting cast as (at best) nuisances who get in the way of his work. Which brings me to...

If a hero is as rich as their supporting cast... Lamont Cranston is a pauper.

But who does make up the Shadow's supporting cast? There's his chauffeur Shrevy up above, along with his secretary Margo Lane, both familiar characters from the radio dramas. Further, Lamont's superior intelligence agent, Weston, is another person heard on the radio. Beyond that, Lamont had agents of his own (in "the Brute," at least) to gather intelligence. None of these characters know Lamont is the Shadow (even though Margo held his confidence on radio).

Lamont cares about his friends to the extent that he'll save them from his foes; however, he also erases their memories and manipulates their actions (re: "the Human Bomb") when it suits his needs. It isn't clear why Margo or Shrevy care for Lamont beyond their duties as his employees. Lamont treats them as subordinates. But the supporting cast's lack of impact on the series could be mitigated by the use of antagonists.

Every good hero deserves to fight the same villain every month?

Out of 8 issues, only one doesn't feature an appearance by Shiwan Khan. In 12 stories total, the Shadow battles Shiwan Khan 7 times; Attila the Hunter, Radiation Rogue and Dr. Demon each twice; the Human Bomb, Dimensionoid, Elasto and the Brute each once. He's also allied with Princess Lua in one story and pit against her in another; plus, there's a vast collection of minor thieves and spies.

Shiwan Khan was the only villain who originated in the Shadow's pulp novels; he appeared four times within two years, yet developed a reputation as the Shadow's greatest foe, even though the Shadow had made more than 300 novels by the time of the Archie comic. Using Shiwan Khan demonstrates the creators had some interest in the character's published history, but I don't see why he needed to be in 7/8 issues; surely the Shadow had other pulp villains who were worth revisiting? Although many other villains were introduced in the comics, usually they served as an accomplice to Shiwan Khan and were eventually betrayed by Khan.

Because the Shadow is repeatedly shown as exceedingly capable - with a gadget to stop anyone - it's hard to imagine his enemies giving him any real difficulty. Even the Brute, the one foe who overcomes everything the Shadow throws at him, is ultimately defeated by the Shadow's mental powers. Some of the Shadow's enemies do have ideas about evading his powers, such as wearing special goggles (Dr. Demon) or painting eyeballs on their eyelids to fool the Shadow (Khan, in "Radiation Rogue"). However, the Shadows powers and gadgets ultimately win out and the villains are often at each other's throats; even when the stakes are high (Khan having nuclear weapons in "Master-Plan"), the Shadow sleepwalks his way through their schemes. And boy, such schemes...

But I haven't even started on the plotting, such as it is. 'Or his sister, Hiwan Khan?'

The series was initially written by Robert Bernstein (issues#1-3, stories #1-6), later by Jerry Siegel (issues#4-8, stories #7-12). I don't know what the workings of Archie Comics would have been at the time - did they use full scripts or "Marvel method?" How much involvement did the editor have over the finished product? Actually, I don't even have the writing credits because Archie didn't supply any; the Grand Comics Database claims Bernstein & Siegel wrote these comics, but they don't explain where their source of information came from.

Under Bernstein, the series was an average secret agent comic book where the author was seemingly forced to make his protagonist an old pulp hero. In Bernstein's last issue, the transition to super hero was made complete; perhaps it had something to do with Bernstein's departure? Perhaps Bernstein's stories were originally written for a secret agent comic but were rewritten to include uses of the Shadow powers and appearances by familiar pulp characters?

By the time Siegel arrived, the series was a super hero extravaganza. Siegel, as co-creator of Superman, really ought to have been up to the concept; after all, at the time he had 25+ years of experience writing comic book, most of them super heroes; he'd worked for every major publisher and self-published. He was not only one of the fathers of the super hero genre, he was one of the fathers of comic book storytelling - full stop! And yet, one wouldn't assume the Shadow#4-8 were written by an experienced professional. The storytelling is so crude it could have been published in 1940, when the medium was young. At times, Siegel's storytelling suggests he has contempt for the very comic he's been hired to write (see the image at the top of this post). The last two issues are filled with smarmy dialogue suggesting the writer can't believe he's wasted 25+ years writing forgettable nonsense for children. And this led to...

The series struggled to extricate the hero from dilemmas without resorting to contrivances.

Even under Bernstein, the Shadow would seemingly forget his powers, especially his trademark power - to become invisible - and thus ignore obvious solutions to his problems. Under Siegel, the situation worsened as the Shadow would use his powers in ridiculous ways (the porcupine-man illusion from "Radiation Rogue") or spring out a variety of gadgets, most of which were not properly set up in advance. The Shadow's Shadow-Gun, belt buckle ray beam, "weakness gas," spring-loaded boots and jet boots would appear as the Shadow needed some quick means to get out of a problem. Other villains have an Achilles heel which isn't brought up until the Shadow exploits it (as in "Game of Death," above). I submit that when the protagonist has vast mental powers and sleuthing abilities, he shouldn't need a deus ex machina to overcome every obstacle. Even if I could forgive the short-cuts in plotting...

Artwork was, at the best of times, functional.

The GCD identified the artist of the first three stories as John Rosenberger; Paul Reinman drew all of the covers and the stories from the fourth on up. Initially, I was very pleased to have a little Reinman art because he demonstrated a minor Kirby influence. However, looking back, Rosenberger was the most consistent artist in terms of panel-to-panel continuity. When Reinman became the artist, important events kept happening off-panel and the lines of perspectives between characters and objects were skewed (such as the size-changing house in "Game of Death"). At times, Reinman could be quite stylish, but for a man of his experience (he'd been in comics almost as long as Siegel), there's no excuse for the quick short-cuts he would take in storytelling (unless it was to match the short-cuts Siegel was making in the plotting). It seems as though Reinman was trying to work outside his limitations, perhaps penciling/inking more pages than he was comfortable with; Kirby had the talent to take on multiple assignments at once without suffering too much (depending on who finished his art), but Reinman seems to be cast adrift on the Shadow, becoming sloppier as he goes (such as the above sequence where the missile's location relative to Dr. Demon changes between panels). Perhaps a good inker could have saved some of Reinman's dignity. But even then...

The series' dialogue becomes increasingly erratic as the book continues.

In my ignorance of the process around how these comics were made, I wonder how much of the awkward dialogue came about because the artists weren't delivering what the plotter asked for. Perhaps the plotter's stories weren't paced properly for the artist, perhaps the plotter forgot certain details he'd intended for the artists to employ. Whatever the reason, dialogue in latter issues of the Shadow is practically at war with the images on the page. In the above sequence from "the Brute," the villain suddenly emits gas to counter the Shadow's gas attack. The Brute had not previously been seen carrying gas cannisters and thus the script has just one panel to establish the Brute has gas and it works to counter the Shadow's. Also, the Brute has to climb out of the pit, all in a single panel!

"The Brute" also has some of the laziest scripting, such as the panel which establishes the location of one scene as "you-know-where" when the audience does not, in fact, know where the scene is set. It's a clumsy attempt at the ingratiating style Stan Lee employed in his scripts, but only serves to highlight how little interest the scripter has in telling the story.

In conclusion

The greatest value of Archie's Shadow is to illustrate how many things can go wrong with a comic book. Between these eight issues, you can find failures in just about everything shy of lettering and colouring. It stands as a curious artifact from the period where Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko were challenging the cliches of the medium while most of their peers were simply clueless.

But is this one of the worst comic books ever made? Not exactly... it is entirely readable. I think a large part of why this comic book developed its reputation is because when the 1960s comic book revolution was occurring, it was stuck in the past; further, it put the Shadow into a ridiculous spandex costume, which no self-proclaimed Shadow fan could sit still for. But heck, the silly tights weren't the worst thing about this comic, as I've observed. The Shadow would eventually star in a number of well-received DC comic books from the 70s to the 90s, then return for the current Dynamite series; he's lived down this blip in his career rather well. As to Siegel and Reinman ...well, some people still give them grief for their other, better-known Archie super hero comics, which have also been called "worst of the 60s" or "worst of all-time." The best thing we can say about Siegel & Reinman is: no one talks about this particular side trip in their otherwise-respected careers.


Michael Brown said...

Good review of a cr*ppy series. I have a few of the issues, but not a complete run.

Interesting thing is while Archie Comics was doing this, their associated company Belmont Books was doing a series of NEW Shadow paperback books, which also cast him as more of a spy (working for C.Y.P.H.E.R.) then a crimefighter. I think the text story that ran in the Shadow comics was authored by the author of the paperback books, but could be wrong.

Michael Hoskin said...

Thank you Michael, that's interesting; perhaps comparing the paperbacks to the text stories might unearth some similar composition styles.